The Secret Superpower to Change Everything About the World
A number of years ago, a friend of mine and his brother received an inheritance from their grandfather. Amongst the assets was a sizable amount of shares in a media company, that had purchased a major Catholic publication.
As they considered this inheritance, they realized that practically, in some way, they were making “money from avoda zara”. And thus began their debate.
One argued that owning shares in the company was so far removed from the publication and its messaging, that there was certainly no prohibition in holding onto their shares.
The other disagreed. No matter how distantly connected, it is categorically unconscionable for a Jew to profit from the dissemination of such material.
Back and forth they argued, until they resolved that they would each speak to a posek of their choice, who could advise them on the matter. A week later they reconvened.
The brother who thought that they should sell the shares began: “I spoke to a posek, who told me to sell my shares. So that's what I'm going to do.” The other brother countered: “The posek that I spoke to told me that I can hold onto my shares, so that's what I'm going to do.”
For the sake of curiousity, they asked each other, which posek each had of them had asked. To their surprise and amazement, they discovered that both had asked Rav Schachter!
And then they began to wonder how it could be that Rav Schachter had given such divergent answers. Until they realized: Rav Schachter had simply answered the question that each had posed. One brother had asked if he should sell his shares. (Yes, that's a good idea.) The other had asked if it was permissible to hold on to them. (Yes, it is permissible.)
What is true in Halacha is just as true in life and relationships: The way that we address a question, a person, a situation or a problem, will significantly impact the outcome of our engagement.
This truth holds within it enormous potential for positivity, as well as the possibility of immense destruction.
Consider for a moment, a well known episode in our Parsha:
The Jewish army are preparing for battle. The air is thick with tension. The soldiers are nervous. The battle field ahead is eerily still. Officers of the Army stand before the troops and announce: “Anyone who has just built a house, planted a vineyard or gotten married... go home!” But just before the young men begin to pick up the weapons and bid their comrades farewell, the officers continue:
מִי הָאִישׁ הַיָּרֵא וְרַךְ הַלֵּבָב יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ Any man who is fearful and fainthearted – Let him go and return to his house!
Rashi here famously quotes from Rabbi Yossi HaGelili: This is war! Everyone is afraid. So who is the Torah referring to? הירא מעבירות שבידו – One who is afraid of their sins. What kind of sin should one be fearful of? The Talmud (סוטה מד ב) explains: Even one who speaks between putting on the hand Tefillin and their head Tefillin.
That's an incredibly high standard! Imagine the Chayal waking up before dawn to prepare for war, desperately doing Teshuva; hoping, yearning, praying that he might achieve forgiveness for his minor infractions.
But this picture of petty is shattered by Rashi two pesukim earlier. Before the officers announce that ineligible soldiers must be sent home, the Kohen appointed to the battlefield makes a speech of his own:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתֶּם קְרֵבִים הַיּוֹם לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֵיכֶם אַל יֵרַךְ לְבַבְכֶם אַל תִּירְאוּ ... כִּי י״י אֱלֹקיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם “Hear, Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies: don’t let your heart faint; don’t be afraid... Hashem goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”
Rashi here quotes from the Talmud:
אפילו אין בכם זכות אלא של קריית שמע בלבד, כדיי אתם שיושיע אתכם. Why does the Kohen begin with שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל? He is announcing that even though you have no other mitzvos other than saying the Shema you deserve Hashem's Devine assistance in battle.
The contradiction is obvious. Is the Jewish army filled with lofty soldiers who are free from even minor infractions? Or is the army filled with soldiers who have no fear because despite their issues, flaws and failings Hashem will be with them? Is it really true that all they need is to say the Shema and prepare for victory?
Rabbi Yissochar Dov of Belz explains: There is no contraction. It all depends on who is asking the question, and what question they are asking.
The officer addressing the troops asks “Has anyone here ever done anything wrong?” Well, yes certainly. We all make mistakes. If I am asked to think of my faults and failings, we'll be here all day, so I best pack up and go home. But the Kohen asks “Did you get a chance to say Shema today? Take a minute and think about how much Hashem loves you! All you need is to say Shema and He'll take care of you.”
The simplicity and profundity of this idea cannot be overstated, especially in the heat of the flame wars of our generation. When we attack each other with accusations we encourage defensiveness, animosity and resentment. Whereas the very same question, when posed with curiosity, empathy and concern will result in conversation and connection.
This is true in the world of husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, chavrusas, business partners, clients and customers.
The Chozeh of Lublin once asked his student, the Yid HaKadosh, if he had any students that he felt were genuinely God fearing, real Yarei Shamayim. The Yid HaKadosh answered: There is one young boy here, Mendel from Tomashov who wants to be a Yarei Shamayim.
Many years later, that Mendel became the Rebbe of Kotzk. He noted about this story: “At that point I still didn't know if I really wanted to be a Yarei Shamayim. But when the Yid HaKadosh said I did, I decided that I could.”
This is perhaps the greatest superpower that Hashem has given us: The ability to uplift, inspire and change the lives of the people around us. All of this is achieved with a simple reframing of our role in their lives: Do we live to poke holes and point fingers or to give a hug and lend a hand? Are we officers or Kohanim?
In the deepest way, it is we who create the worlds we inhabit and the relationships we build. As we inch closer to Rosh HaShana, Hashem is offering us a chance to shape the year ahead. How should we relate to this opportunity? As officers or Kohanim?
Hashem has an opinion: ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים – And you should be for Me, a kingdom of Kohanim, lifting each other up, giving a hug and lending a hand.